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James McAvoy Talks about "Atonement"

By Cole Smithey

JamesmcavoyThere’s a trace of the same chewy Scottish accent in James McAvoy’s speech that audiences associate with Sean Connery’s trademark delivery. And while the two actors couldn’t be further removed in terms of outward appearance, McAvoy possesses a similar winning charm that makes audiences hang on his every word. In person, James McAvoy is the kind of guy that you’d want to hang out with in a bar to watch a soccer match. He’s direct, candid and passionate about his craft, and clearly harbors a serious respect for every aspect of filmmaking. Since capturing the attention of audiences with his powerful performance in last year’s "Last King of Scotland," McAvoy has redoubled his standing as a rising star with a solid turn in "Becoming Jane," and with his first truly leading man performance in director Joe Wright’s weighty romantic drama "Atonement."

I sat down with the effusive actor at Manhattan’s Regency Hotel to discuss "Atonement," and how he approaches his craft.

CS: The Dunkirk scene is an amazing piece of filmmaking with such a long tracking shot. What was that like to be at the heart of?

JM: It was pressurized, it was fraught, and it was a massive gamble. Joe really went out on a limb and thought, "Well, I can’t do what I want to do with this anyway, because we can only get one day with these 1000 actors." So he had to go all in, and he went for it. He asked us what we all thought, and we all went, "Ohhhh, that won’t be easy." But he had a crew and a cast who followed his helming and his corralling and his ability to galvanize people. The great thing, I think, is that filmmaking is a miracle of collaboration, and that one day was a microcosm of that experience. There were 1800 people involved and anyone of them could have screwed it up at any one time, and we did three and a half takes, so in two and a half times one of those people or more did screw up. The fact that we got a take when nobody screwed up is incredible.

The question for me was, "How do I maintain connection with all of the technical marks I need to hit, not just physically but in terms of acting levels, while still feeling the emotion of that moment"? You start to get overwhelmed with emotion because it’s an incredibly moving day. We dream of something like that. It’s not something that happens a lot. To do it so authentically and to do it so massively doesn’t happen a lot. Also you’ve got pressure riding on it so it amplifies the emotion and you start to get a bit overwhelmed. And then you realize that’s you commenting on it, it’s not you living it.

CS: Chemistry is such a cliché, but Keira [Knightly] really do seem have a genuine connection in your scenes together.

JM: People talk about chemistry like it’s separate from acting, and I don’t know that it is. I’ve worked with people that I didn’t necessarily like and had chemistry, and I’ve seen people who were very much in love with each other who had nothing—and they were good actors as well. We got on really well. We both loved each character and we realized quite early on in rehearsals that we were on similar pages, and had similar views on what to do. And it felt that we both had an ally really—someone backing each other up—not that we needed it.

CS: What is it about this story that works for you as an actor and as a viewer?

JM: It’s a very emotional piece, and yet it engages the intellect as much as it engages your heart. I can’t lie and say that it never totally blows your heart away. I think if you’re willing, and if you’re the kind of person that wants that, you can totally break down at any point in the film that you like, especially towards the end. But I think the film is constantly asking the audience to come back from the brink. Just at the moment when it could have remained on a close-up that would bring on the tears, it just cuts back to the stirring of the tea spoons, which makes your brain click in a wee bit more. I think it could have become like mush otherwise, and I feel the script itself treated actors like they had a modicum of intelligence. It didn’t over-explain everything to us or to the audience either. To find a film that was so epic and sweeping and yet also intelligent was nice, off from the fact that it’s a very classic story told in a thoroughly modern way.

CS: It’s a very intense scene when Robbie comes face to face with Briony later on in the story.

JM: He is ready to explode. He is ready to kill her. I wish he had killed her. I find it really hard to forgive her.

CS: How was it working with Brenda Blethyn?

JM: We spent a long time, Brenda and I. Brenda is one of my favorite actresses. She’s wonderful. I was honored just to spend time with her actually. She’s a quite special lady as well as an actress. We spent quite a long time talking about our relationship, and as characters sometime talking to each other in rehearsals. There was a whole beautiful story that we had that was created in the absence of a dad. There’s real love between those two. I think they mirror each other, and that admiration knows no bounds. I think they’re kind of in love with each other. They don’t just love each other; I think they’re in love with each other a little bit. Mothers can’t help but be proud.

Robbie has kind of been patronized his entire life, but I think that’s what makes Robbie not necessarily representative of the human race. He doesn’t have dark to him. I think he has empathy for everyone, and I think he gets why he challenges Mrs. Tallis. He understands why she doesn’t like him, why he challenges her, why he challenges her entire system. But what’s he going to do? Why should he be angry because she’s upset. She’s the one with a problem. I think the thing you don’t get in the film is the relationship he has with their father. He’s got a closer relationship with their father than any of them do. He’s the son that the other son should have been.

He’s not bitter, that’s the amazing thing. He becomes somebody who gets bitter. He becomes somebody who’s tainted, and strangely becomes much more identifiably human when he becomes suicidal. Suicide seems to be a more human trait than forgiveness and empathy and openness.

CS: What other movies do you have coming out?

JM: I’ve got a thing called "Penelope," with Reese Witherspoon and Christina Ricci. In March I have a thing called "Wanted," which is a gangster adventure thing with Morgan Freeman and Angelina Jolie. I’ve got things we’re about to sign off on, but haven’t yet.

CS: You’ve done several adaptations from novels. Do you think it’s advantageous to read the source material?

JM: It depends really. If you’re making something that is incredibly faithful to the original, then yes there’s an advantage. "The Last King of Scotland" was faithful in its in essence but my character was such a departure from Nicholas Carrigan in Giles Fordam’s book that it wasn’t helpful. It got in the way and I had to try and forget it because it was so different.

CS: How do you approach parts through your craft?

JM: I had a bit of training and I did a lot of work in theater at a conservatoire in Glasgow, so playing with styles is something that I try to do with every film. I don’t think an actor should approach every film with one technique. I think you should become the type of actor that’s required for the style of the film or the thing that you’re doing. So that requires you to change as an extension of that. It wasn’t the easiest thing I’ve done, and I think it was easier for some of the cast than others. What I loved was that we all sat around a table. We wouldn’t just go home and do our work. We would do it together so that the style of acting had a cohesive bond that made us feel like the film had a style instead of each actor standing out. With the style, not just with the accent, not just the speed with which you speak but things like talking on voice the entire time—never sotto voce unless you’re dying or you’re trying to be stealthy, and never letting your energy drop at the end of a line, but giving it to people. It’s very theatrical, but it’s brilliant that we could do that in film, and that it would work.

Posted by Cole Smithey on December 16, 2007 in Film | Permalink
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